Help your teenager develop and maintain healthy body image and good self-esteem

How do you help a teen develop and maintain a healthy body image and good self-esteem? Doing so can be a real challenge.

Teens' bodies are growing and changing, perhaps making them self-conscious and hyper-aware of every blemish and extra pound. Teens also are constantly bombarded with idealized, often computer-enhanced, body images that are impossible to measure up to. These messages have the ability to manipulate all of us into thinking that we are too fat, too thin, too short, or too tall.

The good news is that, as a parent, you have more influence than you think to help your teen navigate this difficult time of life and develop a positive self-image, no matter their size or shape.

Both Girls and Boys Are Affected
Between glossy fashion magazines, MTV, social media, and popular movies, teenage girls can get the impression that fashion models and celebrities have perfect bodies and flawless skin. Many teenage boys compare themselves to the buff athletes and movie stars they see in magazines, the Internet, and on TV. They feel dissatisfied if their own bodies don't measure up.

In some cases, negative body image has been linked with depression, eating disorders, and other risky behaviors.

Teenage boys aren't usually as verbal about body image issues as girls, but that doesn't mean they don't experience them. Remember the story of the 98-pound weakling who had sand kicked in his face at the beach? On the other end, boys who are overweight often endure social isolation and even bullying in school. Boys also suffer from eating disorders. Unfortunately parents and doctors may overlook them, even if they are alert to such problems in girls.

If you believe your teen may be struggling with low self-esteem or body image issues, what can you do? Here are some simple steps. Of course, if you notice dramatic changes in your teen's weight or eating habits, touch base with a health care provider.

Teens, Body Image, and Self-Esteem: 5 Tips for Parents
1. Be a good role model. Your teen does notice. Your teen is closely observing your lifestyle, eating habits, and attitudes about issues like appearance and weight, even if she seems to cringe every time you speak. Pay attention to the example you are setting, and make changes if you don't like what you see. Looking at yourself through your children's eyes can be a great motivator to begin an exercise program, adopt a healthier diet, or turn off the television and get moving instead.

Remember, your child will also model your attitudes about your body. So if you're constantly decrying your hip size or thinning hair, your child will learn to focus on her flaws instead of her attributes.

2. Be positive. Never make critical remarks about your teen's body. If she has a weight problem, you can be sure she's aware of it. Negative remarks will only make her feel more discouraged and could make the problem worse.

Instead, compliment your teen. Tell her what a pretty smile she has, or how that shirt makes his eyes shine. When you appreciate their physical capabilities -- "Thanks for opening that jar for me" or "You folded that laundry so fast!" -- you are building a positive body image. Help your teen make the most of his or her attributes by encouraging good personal hygiene and posture, healthy sleep habits, and stress reduction.

When your teen is sitting on the couch, suggest you go out for a walk or run together or head to the gym. There is evidence that girls who participate in athletics have healthier body images and higher self-esteem than those who do not. Research has also found that girls who participate in athletics have lower rates of depression, teen pregnancy, and other risky teen behavior.

If you feel you need more help, talk to your teen's school counselor or consult her health care provider and work together to come up with a nutrition and exercise plan.

3. Teach your teen about media.
Don't let your daughter be a fashion victim or your son become obsessed with being muscle-bound. Help him or her develop a healthy skepticism about images in magazines, on screen, and on the web. Make sure your teen understands the airbrushing, photo manipulation, stylists, personal trainers, cosmetic surgery, and other tricks that make up the beauty industry and celebrity culture. Guide your teen to decode advertising messages that link products with personal fulfillment.

4. Emphasize other qualities over appearance.
Support your teen to develop talents and skills that have nothing to do with appearance -- like music, sports, arts, and volunteer activities. Show an interest in his or her passions and pursuits. Acknowledge the good things you love about them, such as how they can make you laugh or their dedication to schoolwork or the way they look out for their younger siblings. Focus on health over appearance whenever possible.

While it's important to have a positive body image, make sure it doesn't go too far. For example, in their quest for the perfect six-pack, some teenage boys exercise to an extreme, try to bulk up by using vitamins and supplements, or experiment with steroids. Watch for any dramatic changes in your teen's eating habits or weight, and consult his doctor if you have concerns.

5. Make good health a family affair. Your entire family will be healthier if you avoid fast food, keep junk food out of the house, cook nutritious meals, and get active. But you don't have to do it all at once to make a difference. Just one small change can start building your and your teen's confidence and help you work toward bigger goals. Having other family members sharing in these new behaviors will make your teen feel less isolated and will also help keep the entire family healthier.

Try scheduling a regular family meal as a good first step. Studies have shown that eating regular, healthy family meals can reduce the risk of obesity in children. So start a nightly family dinner ritual if you don't have one already.

Then, instead of turning on the TV after dinner, suggest a family walk. You could also offer to join a gym and go with your teen. It's OK to start out slowly, maybe being more active once a week, and then walk or workout more often over time. If you make a healthy lifestyle part of your family culture, your child will develop good habits to last a lifetime.

- Credit: WebMD

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